In the spirit of history remembered, it is hard to believe that it was 50 years ago, that brave Americans of all races and religions marched in Selma, AL for the civil rights of all Americans. The marchers, the freedom riders, and the Civil Rights Movement made change possible. We must be grateful for those marchers whose names we do not know as well as those we do know. Congressman John Lewis who marched that fateful day said “some of us gave a little blood on that bridge to redeem the soul of America, to make America better.” In is in that spirit of remembering our history and the sacrifices of those who marched we must also remember the spirituals they sung walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, that helped give the marchers courage and strength as it had given the slaves and white soldiers as they fought in the Civil War, before them.
It is precisely because of our coming together to make America better in our history as a diverse nation that inspires me. My work so far has been to go back even further in our history to honor and acknowledge the slaves contribution to our nation along side the settlers and our founding fathers and to ensure the African American Spirituals will be preserved in all their many facets. Most dear to my heart has been the preservation of that original sound sung in the cotton fields of the old South and the meanings and inspiration of these humble songs created by the slaves. I think it is important to know and acknowledge where the music came from and who created it but even beyond that the spirituals cross any and all boundaries. Ironically, it was the African American spirituals, jazz and blues, that taught the world it is ok to cross boundaries to make great music, it didn’t matter the color of your skin or your ethnicity or gender it is totally irrelevant to making music. Simply, music is what comes through your soul to share with others; music doesn’t see boundaries or limitations it just wants to transmit sound that will move the soul who hears it.
For me activism, music and art go hand in hand. Music and art usually reflect the true essence of what is going on within society in each generation. The spirituals transcended societies reflections of history in a time period that would not allow the slaves who created the spirituals to have a voice. Therefore the essence and secret intent of the spirituals were hidden in plain view in order to preserve and document the story of the slaves existence in America. We all have the need to feel valued and know that at the very least our collective story will remain for future generations to study. The slaves were no different, they just couldn’t tell their story out right in their life time for the world to see, they were depending on each other orally to keep their story alive for future generations. Although we don’t know the individual names of the slaves who created these songs, the spirituals represent one of the deepest most beautiful raw expressions of the human spirit ever created on American soil.
The spirituals are just too valuable to be forgotten and as my dear friend Dr. Dorothy Height (1912-2010), Civil Rights icon, former President and Chairwoman of the NCNW said to me, “I am so proud of you Calvin for presenting this legislation(H RES 120 & S RES 69) to the US Congress, because without recognizing the spirituals, it would be like we were never here”. For me her words solidified what I had been saying for years in my one man show: “if we don’t know where we came from, how can we possibly know who we are and where we are going?” Preserving the spirituals preserves the spirit of all America. I feel if people could see what I see that the spirituals and the unknown beautiful human beings who created them, in spite of their oppressive and painful circumstances created a music that changed the world for the good of all people. That is why I continue to take action, if nothing else to show my own gratitude for what the slaves and their music have given me. I am here because of them.